Short Lapses of Silence: Buddhism, Bicycles and Vinyl Records.

This is an article I wrote for Boneshaker seven, on quiet moments in a hectic world.


You can pledge for my Boneshaker Book Project “Mind is the Ride,” on Cycling and Philosophy, crowdfunding here.


I went into town to get ‘A Short Introduction to Buddhism’ only to discover I’d forgotten my bike lock. So I did what this guy at the chip shop once told me. Flip the bike upside down and keep an eye on it through the window. But the bookshop I’d chosen was enormous and the window was blacked out so I had to get the shop assistant to go on the hunt while I rocked backwards and forwards on the doormat trying to keep an eye on my cherished Raleigh.

“ Buddhism for Beginners…?” he said, slipping out a tome.

“Too big.” Rock back on heels to check bike.

“The Modern Buddhist…? That’s quite slim.”

Rock forward, neck becomes tense. “I’m looking for more of an introduction…”

“The Dalai Lama and you…,” he says.

“No, no, An Introduction…,” I say.

“Here we go…” He finds a tome that makes a ‘flump’ sound as he slips it out of the shelves.

“No, no, a Short Introduction to Buddhism…” I rock backwards. A man with bad teeth is reaching towards my bike. “Ummm…. Ummm.” I knock on the doorpane and the man retreats.

“Here we go,” says the bookseller, “A Very Short Introduction to Buddhism…”

“Yeh, yeh, yeh give me that one.” I wave my credit card at him and leave with a book, which is the same size and colour as a bar of chocolate. The man with the bad teeth has gone but the back wheel of my upside down bike is going round and round and round like he’s given it a twirl. The freewheel clicks. I wonder if Buddha would have liked cycling? He was always sitting cross-legged though and well, that dhoti and the chain ring…The wheel keeps on spinning. Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick…

I think back to a weekend visit to my parents. In my old room, long since converted into office space, there is a bookshelf of adolescent reads and some non-fiction my Mum has bought me over the years. In amongst the angry young man books I find ‘Meditation in a Week’ and further along ‘Meditation in a Day’ and finally, hidden by Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’, the stocking filler ‘Instant Meditation.’ At some point my mother would be buying me ‘Meditation in No Time At All’, a form of meditation so immediate it happens even before it’s contemplated, the single sheet of instructions lost forever amidst the poetry anthologies and dystopias.

In ‘The Bicycle Book’, writer Bella Bathurst interviews Patrick Field of the London School of Cycling, who teaches city riding skills. “How you treat a red light,” he says, “depends on how you feel about yourself and society….The ones who make me laugh are…you know, I’m waiting at a red light, and these kids go past, desperate to move, as if their bike will explode if they stop…” He goes on; “The people who can’t stop at red lights aren’t happy – they don’t have the psychological resources to be themselves, so they’re infected with this anxiety, this “I’ve got to get going.”

I had friend who cycled everywhere plugged into her iPod. To the shops, to the next town, to the mountains, her playlist on an infinite shuffle. And then she realised this was because she couldn’t bear her own company. She told me this outside a house party and the mobile she was holding dropped to the pavement, the back fell off and she broke into tears.

All very dramatic, but I knew what she meant. For a long time cycling wasn’t enough for me. I had to be plugged in. I had to be receiving stimulus. And then someone wagged a finger.

“Earphones and cycling are unsafe,” they said, “you’re a risk to yourself and other road users.”

“OK”, I thought, “I’ll get some ‘safe’ ones.”

So I bought ‘in line’ headphones, backward-facing devices that could ‘slingshot’ music across a gap between the speakers and my lugholes, a space into which, so the blurb persuaded me, the external world could safely permeate. Thus I would ride, thus I would glide through the traffic, like a bit part in one of those sold-out folk music phone adverts.

But at the end of one of these trips I felt like I’d been gunned down. A drive-by shooting in a gold fish bowl. ‘Shooting’ noise into my brain wasn’t a good idea. It wasn’t doing the music or the cycling any favours. Modern life is geared up to selling stuff to help us cope with modern life. The world spins on its kaleidoscopic axis faster and faster and faster. So how do I fit it all in? Do I change my life? No, I buy something that changes me. Crowbar in another 10 minutes of Led Zeppelin. Bam. Click to another playlist.

I’m going to sound like a pipe-smoking beardy here, but I do remember vinyl with a painful ache. After one side finished, those delicious thirty seconds as the album is flipped over and the needle replaced. A short lapse of silence.
There are the doers and there are the done-to. And I’ve always liked to think I’m a doer and cycling has been part of that philosophy. I am the agent of my own locomotion. I will go where I chose and when I chose, at my own will. But it took many thousands of kilometres of riding to realise that what I liked most about cycling was not doing anything.

Somewhere on a plateau amongst the Turkish mountains after all that pummelling and grunting, all those roaring, guffing trucks, what I needed, what I found, was a coasting horizontal, lost in an infinite moment of going and not going. The hills so far away across the plains it seemed like I, and they, were never going to move and all the wreckage of the modern world holding its breath, lost in the moment. It took me twenty years of cycling to realise that the best part of it was being still. The freewheel going tick, tick, tick, tick. Marking out the fragments of silence.

Steve Hagan, a self-styled priest of Zen Buddhism, says this: “Generally we think of a journey as involving movement and direction, either going somewhere into the world or else leading inward, into the self. But in Buddhism our journey must go nowhere – neither in nor out. Rather, ours is a journey into nearness, into immediacy…….To be fully alive we must be fully present.”

And shooting John Coltrane into my head is not going to help. I’m not going to pretend that I don’t still listen to music and ride, because I do. But I have a lot more time for silence. And when I say silence, I mean air marked out by lucid punctuations, birdsong, leaves rubbing their hands together, the tyre pressing into the earth in the park, the freewheel going tick, tick, tick… I used to ride to work straight down the cycle track, headphones in and bam! I’d be there. Now I go through the park; it takes twice as long but I and the world get to hang out a bit more.

The first of the four truths of the Buddha is ‘Dukkha’, coming from a Sanskrit word that refers to a wheel out of kilter. ‘Dukkha’ is also defined as ‘suffering’.

“In the Buddha’s time the accompanying image may have been a cart with an out-of-true wheel being pulled along,” says Steve Hagan. It would be trite for me to try and explain Buddhism in a short essay or to extrapolate a thousand years of thinking into a bicycle ride. But I think Buddha would have enjoyed our two-wheeled friend. And he would have been the first to point out that the ‘out of kilter wheel’ is in the rider and not the bike. With all the restless having-to-get-a-move-on that modern life demands, we are in danger of forgetting that one of cycling’s great pleasures is not that it gets us places but that it puts us in a place; it gives us a tangible sense of presence in the world, a sense of hereness that forgets the suffered anguish of desire, the consumer mosh pit and the white chocolate mp3 player.

So yes, let it be said, I am a fan of the freewheel hub, the ratcheting mechanism in the rear mech that lets your bike coast ever-onwards without having to pedal. I’ve never ridden a fixed wheel (with no ‘freewheel’) but I don’t think I’d like it. I watch those ‘fixies’ balancing on their pedals at traffic lights and it all looks a bit too, well, precarious.

Of course you can’t judge a bike you haven’t had a go on. That’s like a politician ranting about the moral decency of a film he hasn’t seen.

“Hey daddio, get on the saddle,” those messenger boys would say, “you might enjoy it.”

I’m sure I would, but for now I’m quite happy freewheeling through the park. And now I’ve zoned in on the freewheel I see it everywhere. I see it in old men sat on park benches talking about this and that as the sun goes down, nowhere to go and everywhere to be. And then I see it in young lovers on that bit of concrete that was going to be used as part of the boating lake but never got used as part of the boating lake, so tied up in the dance around each other, they only exist in the moment, as the sun goes revolving around them. And I see it in me when I go running down the hill, so steep I just have to keep on going. If I put my arms out wide and pretend I’m an aeroplane and make a “wooo” sound, I forget my legs and get caught in the endless moment of gravity’s pull. And that “wooo” noise is a kind of silence. And cycling is a way of being still. And there is no Very Short Introduction to Buddhism only a Buddhist approach to Very Short Introductions.

“Tick, tick, tick, tick……”

I once biked to a sandy desert. OK, I cycled to a big Iranian city then I took a bus and a taxi. But the place was amazing – one of those ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ sandpits – and the thing that struck me, apart from the sensuousness of the dunes, was the quality of the silence. It was so absolute you could hear your own mind, a low level hum that wasn’t tinnitus but could only be the mind, the ratchets of the ear ticking over. In the search for peace and stillness and silence ‘out there’, ultimately we return to ourselves.


You can pledge for my Boneshaker Book Project “Mind is the Ride,” on Cycling and Philosophy, crowdfunding here.

Illustration by Kerry Hyndman

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